Chapter 3. Literary Handbooks, Dictionaries, and Encyclopedias

Table of Contents

Literary handbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias are useful for finding brief biographies of authors; descriptions of literary characters; plot summaries; definitions of terms; and information about events, groups, places, and institutions of literary interest. Some also include potted critical commentary. The best ones offer accurate, concise entries written by established scholars and overseen by an editor who exercises judicious selectivity and a firm editorial hand.

This section is limited to works devoted to literary terminology or more than one national literature. For an evaluative overview of 20 handbooks, several of which are omitted from this Guide, see Thomas Clayton, “Literary Handbooks: A Critical Survey,” Literary Research Newsletter 5.2 (1980): 67–87.

The best one-volume general encyclopedia is The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed, ed. Paul Lagassé (New York: Columbia UP, 2000; 3,156 pp.), available online through (, Credo Reference (, and EBSCO [I512]); the best multivolume one is Encyclopædia Britannica Online (

This Guide excludes collections of plot summaries; those needing to locate a synopsis of a specific work can consult Carol Koehmstedt Kolar, comp., Plot Summary Index, 2nd ed., rev. and enl. (Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1981; 526 pp.), or Barbara K. Adams et al., eds., Plot Locator: An Index to Summaries of Fiction and Nonfiction (New York: Garland, 1991; 704 pp.; Garland Reference Lib. of the Humanities 1437).

Literary Terminology


Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. 12th ed. Boston: Pearson-Longman, 2012. 655 pp. PN41.H355 803.

A dictionary of places, groups, movements, isms, critical terms, forms, genres, periods, character types, concepts, and other literary terms associated with English and American literature. Each entry provides a succinct, admirably clear definition, frequently accompanied by examples, liberal cross-references, and (in some) citations to important scholarship. Concludes with a chronology of British, American, and world literary history (through early 2010) and five appendixes: English monetary terms and values; Nobel prizes in literature (through 2010); Pulitzer prizes for fiction, poetry, and drama (through 2010). Indexed by persons. The Companion Website for A Handbook to Literature ( is designed for teachers and students. The most authoritative and clear of the numerous general handbooks to English and American literature, Handbook to Literature is the classic in its field and an essential desktop companion.

Chris Baldick, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008; 361 pp.), is a more concise, but quite serviceable, compilation, with succinct, clearly written definitions that frequently—but inconsistently—include pronunciation (e.g., for lyric but not for préciosité). Web links are updated at


Cuddon, J. A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Rev. M. A. R. Habib. 5th ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. 784 pp. PN41.C83 803.

A dictionary of technical terminology, forms, genres, kinds, groups, schools, movements, phrases, isms, motifs, themes, character types, modes, styles, objects, and concepts associated with classical and modern literatures and currently in regular use. Along with a brief definition or description, many entries provide an etymology, examples, or an illustrative passage; some cite major studies. The fifth edition shortens lengthy entries to no more than three pages, drops “a number of very obscure terms,” adds several new entries, and expands or updates many existing entries. Although some entries are uneven and definitions are frequently vague or too diffuse, Cuddon is the most international and inclusive of single-volume dictionaries of literary terms. Review (3rd ed.): Peter Barry, English 40.168 (1991): 275–84.

More restricted in its coverage is David Mikics, A New Handbook of Literary Terms (New Haven: Yale UP, 2007; 348 pp.), which emphasizes the European tradition. The discussions frequently present telling examples from literary works and cite related scholarship (though the practice of giving the date of first appearance of a book can prevent readers from tracking down a revised edition: see the entries for folio and science fiction); a few entries explain pronunciation. Indexed by persons and subjects.

See also

Dupriez, Dictionary of Literary Devices (U5560a).

International Dictionary of Theatre Language (L1135).

Lanham, Handlist of Rhetorical Terms (U5560a).